``Look for young feminists where they are, not where we used to be.''
WHAT COULD FEEL more historic than celebrating Women's History Month
in Gloria Steinem's New York apartment? More than 40 women and men
gathered there, on the evening after International Women's Day, to
pay special tribute to the newly emerging women's movements that have
taken root in Central and Eastern Europe since the collapse of
communism a decade ago.
Looking around the happily crowded living room of international
and intergenerational feminists -- American second-
wave pioneers, Croatian and Serbian peace activists, thirtysomething
human rights lawyers and Webmistresses from many countries -- I
recalled the questions I often hear from friends and acquaintances:
Where are the younger generations of feminists? Is the women's
With 30 percent of American women identifying as feminists, and 70
percent saying they support equality between men and women, should we
worry that feminism is disappearing? Perhaps these questions signify
that our understanding of feminism, rooted in the American experience
of the 1960s and '70s, needs to catch up with where the women's
movement is today. In this age of globalization, feminism has also
Look on the World Wide Web or in the halls of the United Nations,
and you'll be certain to find women's rights activists of all ages
and nationalities lobbying their respective governments to uphold
international human rights conventions. Women today are engaged with
governments and international institutions in unprecedented ways that
enable them to collaborate in solving complex and universal problems
such as violence, economic disparity, reproductive rights and sexual
In the United States two decades ago, it seemed a backlash against
feminism was dangerously depleting the women's movement. However,
within the ranks, Ameri
can feminism was reinventing itself, reaching out to newer women's
movements worldwide, and adopting human rights language to more
clearly articulate the complexity of violations against women's
rights. In fact, the notion that ``women's rights are human rights''
transformed feminism, strengthening the capacity of activists and
their organizations to promote gender awareness, protect women's
entitlements and join forces with the human rights community.
Historic advances were made: At the 1993 Vienna World Conference
on Human Rights, women's advocates organized a global tribunal, which
succeeded in connecting violence against women to laws dealing with
human rights abuses that governments are supposed to uphold.
Moreover, for the first time, in the 1990s, the rape of women was
recognized as a war crime and is being prosecuted in the former
Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals.
The U.N. women's conferences, which began in the 1970s, exemplify
both the power of global organizing and the opportunities for passing
along the torch from one generation to the next. In 1975,
International Women's Year, the first U.N. World Conference on Women
was held in Mexico City and inaugurated the U.N. Decade for Women. By
fostering a global feminist dialogue and agenda, these assemblies
were important catalysts in the struggle to achieve gender equality
The fourth U.N. World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in
1995, drew greater international participation from women activists
--many of whom were in their 20s and 30s -- than any of the
gatherings that had preceded it. Thirty thousand representatives of
nongovernmental organizations constituted both the largest gathering
of this kind at a world conference and the largest international
meeting of women ever. The breadth of participation and the specific
goals that governments agreed upon to institutionalize equality
signified that women's movements had reached a new level of maturity
and strength. No longer were they being treated as special-
interest factions, but now, finally, as key players in shaping the
Since 1995, women's nongovernmental organizations have been
pressure their governments to carry out their commitments to the
Beijing Platform for Action, which established that women's rights
are human rights; that poverty affects women disproportionately; and
that health care and education have historically marginalized women.
This June, a major five-
year, intergovernmental assessment will take place at the United
Nations. nongovernmental organization leaders worldwide, including
those gathered at Gloria Steinem's, are preparing to take their
governments to task.
International feminism has roots in the early 20th century. By the
outbreak of World War I, women in many Western countries had
organized transnational organizations to promote suffragism, peace
and security. They came together across national boundaries to form
an international identity for women's rights advocates. With ties to
the League of Nations and other major international organizations of
the first half-century, they launched a ``first-wave'' global women's
movement, winning the vote for some, and lasting up to World War II.
Just imagine -- a women's rights diplomacy had fanned out across
continents, even in the absence of fax machines, frequent-flier miles
and the Internet.
A ``second-wave'' of global women's organizing efforts developed
in the decades following World War II and, drawing inspiration from
its predecessor, is today multiplying around the world. It is no
wonder, then, that this year's commemoration of Women's History
Month, which comes at the start of a new millennium, is fostering
optimism that the 21st century will build upon the last century's
foundation of progress to fulfill the still unrealized ideal of full
equality between women and men. It will take new generations to carry
out this legacy, and the good news is they are already doing so. You
simply have to know where to look for them.
Shana Penn is project director of the International Museum of Women in San Francisco.